With one out of every 10 workers currently unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers across the country are updating their skills. Luckily you don’t have to go into debt to retool your career. From company-funded retraining programs to adult-targeted financial aid awards to federally funded work force development centers, several free education options are available to help get the unemployed back on their feet. Check out these ways to reinvent your career without going broke.

How to get help
  1. Talk to the boss.
  2. Ask the government.
  3. Tap into colleges.
  4. Seek private funds.
  5. Change careers.

Talk to the boss

Before making a grand exit, Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, advises the recently laid off to investigate if their severance package includes cash or provisions for retraining or professional development.

“Companies have cut back on funding educational programs (for terminated employees), but some still do,” he says. “It all depends on which company you’re working for and the kind of position you’re in.”

While those with cushy jobs usually get the sweetest severance packages, workers in lower positions may be able to negotiate additional education benefits with the help of their labor union or simply by approaching their boss.

Ask the government

If the former boss won’t pick up the tuition tab, try Uncle Sam, says Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board in Olympia, Wash. Through the Department of Labor’s regional One-Stop Career Centers, the unemployed can find information on available jobs as well as free classes on basic academic skills, job preparation and computer training.

“One-Stop Career Centers also have information on funding for local dislocated workers,” Papadakis says. “The economic stimulus bill injected almost twice as much money in training and education for dislocated workers, so there is funding if someone needs new skills to find work.”

Papadakis adds that while the federal government provides free help to all job seekers, recent legislation focuses on two specific groups of dislocated workers — victims of global competition and those of mass layoffs at nongovernmental facilities, where 50 to 499 full-time workers simultaneously lose their jobs.

According to the Department of Labor’s Web site, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program provides workers in such industries as manufacturing, farming and production who lose their jobs to overseas competition up to 104 weeks of paid occupational training, remedial education or literacy training, as well as weekly cash payments for up to one year after their unemployment benefits run out. Victims of a mass layoff in industries that don’t qualify for program funding may be able to score free retraining workshops, college courses or professional development classes through the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.

Workers in either program may use their funds to update current skills or prepare for an entirely new career. Information on both programs as well as federal and state-funded retraining programs aimed at military veterans, minorities, women and underemployed workers is available at One-Stop Career Centers.

Tap into colleges

“It’s a misnomer that financial aid is only for high school kids going to college in a traditional setting,” says Wegenke. “Forty percent of our students are over the age of 25 and 90 percent get financial aid.”

Those thinking about heading to college after getting laid off are in luck. This year the federal government, state governments, and individual colleges and universities have all created financial aid and tuition reduction programs aimed specifically at dislocated employees.

“One of the biggest changes is that dislocated workers (and homemakers) are receiving special consideration for Pell grants this year,” says Linda Pierce, manager of the program compliance and support branch at the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training in Frankfurt, Ky. “That can pay up to $5,350 (per year) for their education.”

In addition to increased eligibility for the Pell Grant — the largest federally funded scholarship program available to students — several individual institutions, including East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., and the University of Arkansas at Monticello, offer private scholarship and grant programs for the recently laid off.

Pierce recommends that those seeking financial aid should start the scholarship hunt by identifying what type of vocational development program they’ll need and then calling those institutions to ask about financial aid. Workers eyeing regionally accredited two- and four-year colleges can apply for federal financial aid including Pell Grants, student loans and work-study arrangements by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Workers may have to fill out additional paperwork or provide extra documentation to apply for private scholarships and grants available through colleges and training centers.

David Baime, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, also recommends that older students talk with the institution’s financial aid counselors about their job situation.

“A lot of aid eligibility is determined by the student’s income from the year before and obviously that’s going to change if someone’s been laid off,” Baime says. “Students need to let their (aid officers) know that their situation is different than it was a year ago.”

Pierce adds that there is one way that dislocated workers can reduce college costs and sidestep financial aid paperwork.

“Kentucky’s community and technical college system offers tuition waivers of up to 50 percent for up to six credit hours per term for workers who have become unemployed since October of 2008,” says Pierce. “A lot of schools across the nation are offering discounts like that.”

While certain states like Kentucky and New Jersey offer statewide tuition waiver programs, Pierce says that a significant number of individual institutions offer waiver or tuition discount incentives for senior citizens, military vets, disabled students and workers who recently lost their jobs. Students interested in tuition discount deals should contact their school’s financial aid office or their local One-Stop Career Center.

Seek private funds

If the feds or the school won’t pay for retraining, never fear. Private funding is out there.

“Labor unions, for example, often have tuition support funds for their members,” says Papadakis. “They also have ongoing contact with the Department of Labor so they have a good sense of what’s available for workers that are laid off.”

Papadakis adds that workers who aren’t union members might be eligible for free or low-cost education through professional associations, civic groups, public libraries, community centers or nonprofit organizations such as Goodwill. A quick call to local union reps and professional groups in your field could yield thousands of dollars’ worth of free education.

Change careers (and get paid)

Instead of separating work and education, why not blend the two and earn a paycheck? Such national service programs as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and Teach for America provide willing workers with free on-the-job training, a paid position and an education award that can be applied to future college classes or forgiveness of up to 70 percent of incurred student loan debt. True, the pay is generally nominal, but those who complete service sometimes get preferential treatment for federal jobs.

Workers can also get a job and an education through apprenticeship arrangements. The book “200 Best Jobs Through Apprenticeships” reports that there are currently more than 1,000 paid apprenticeship programs in fields ranging from elevator operation to information technology. In addition to commanding a full salary, apprentices graduate with experience and a guaranteed job. Learn more about apprenticeship programs nationwide at the Department of Labor’s Web site.

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